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Health and Care Professions Council (Registration and Fees) (Amendment) (No. 2) Rules Order of Council 2015

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the Grand Committee takes note of the Health and Care Professions Council (Registration and Fees) (Amendment) (No. 2) Rules Order of Council 2015 and of the increase in mandatory registration renewal fees for health and social work professionals (SI 2015/1337).

My Lords, this order concerns the Health and Care Professions Council and its fee raise, which is in relation to 330,000 health and social care professionals. They include paramedics, occupational therapists, biomedical scientists, chiropodists, dieticians, physiotherapists, radiographers, prosthetists, orthotists, speech therapists and social workers. That list brings home the importance of this group of professionals. Parliament, through various pieces of legislation, has seen fit to ensure that they are subject to mandatory regulation in the interests of public protection. Parliament also has a role, therefore, in overseeing the performance of the regulatory bodies.

On 1 August, the annual registration fee for members of the professions covered by the HCPC went up by 12.5% overnight as a result of the order that we debate today. The order was passed in the face of cross-party concern, including 100 Members who signed up to an Early Day Motion and indeed the tabling of a Motion to annul in committee at Holyrood. The 12.5% increase in fees followed on the heels of a 5% rise the previous year and in the face of assurances given by the HCPC in 2014 that it would not look to raise fees again until 2016. This is not being done in isolation. I know that we are not discussing other regulatory bodies, but I would mention to the Minister the NMC, which raised fees for nurses in 2013 from £76 to £100 and in 2015 from £100 to £120. The points that I want to raise in principle relate to a number of these regulatory bodies.

The contrast that I want to make is between the regulator’s demand for an increase in fees alongside what is essentially the sixth year of pay freeze and pay restraint and the Government’s policy on austerity generally. It is a puzzle as to how, when the public sector in general is under tight financial control, the one area that seems to be able to raise its fees willy-nilly is that of the professional regulatory bodies and the Care Quality Commission. The Minister will know that the CQC proposes to raise fees hugely, at some financial risk, particularly in the care sector. That is not for debate today, but there is an issue of principle here: in contrast to the issue of pay restraint and restraint generally on the public sector, a group of regulators seems to be able to put forward proposals, which the Government accept, for large fee increases.

I read the consultation paper issued by the HCPC, which said that the unexpected fee rise was prompted by the levy that it now has to pay to fund the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care, the regulators’ regulator. I understand that and it was fully discussed in a debate in the other place in March. However, it subsequently emerged that the levy that it said had to be paid because of the Professional Standards Authority actually accounted for only 30% of the fee rise, and the remaining 70% was so that the HCPC could buy new accommodation for hearings, IT and quality assurance systems. In the consultation document, as far as I can see, that was not made clear. There was no breakdown or detailed justification of the fee increase.

That is particularly striking in light of the judicial review proceedings brought by the British Dental Association against the increase proposed by the General Dental Council whereas I understand that the High Court said that a regulator’s consultation on fee increase must set out a clear and detailed breakdown of the financial case for proposed increases. My point to the Minister is that that did not happen in relation to the HCPC consultation. There are three areas that I want to touch on. The first is that the consultation itself was extremely short. It covered the Easter holidays, May Day bank holiday and the purdah period. It closed on 6 May, the day before the general election. It totalled just 26 working days, leading many to suspect that it was designed to be buried away from scrutiny.

My second point is about accountability. Of those who did respond to the consultation, 86% of individual respondents objected to the increase, as did three-quarters of organisations. Their objections made not one iota of difference.

I come now to the role of the PSA, the regulators’ regulator. One of the problems is that while in a sense it can ask for a levy in order to fund itself, it does not seem to have a role to intervene on how regulators set fees or consult on them. In the light of experience with the HCPC, it would be good for the PSA to take a more proactive role. We know from submissions that I have received from staff organisations—I particularly refer the Minister to a survey by UNISON of nearly 5,000 registrants across the professions—that the fee rise was commonly referred to as a stealth tax. If you have no choice but to pay to practise your profession then it feels like a form of taxation. Yet registrants have little representation in the decision-making process that sets that fee.

Will the Minister also comment on the issue of the HCPC? Does it represent value for money? I know that the HCPC has done very good work, and I do not deny that it has absorbed a number of professions over the years successfully. However, these large fee increases bring concerns about whether the overall operation of the HCPC—and the other regulated bodies—is as efficient as it could be.

I want to raise with the Minister an issue that has been presented to me: although the fee might not be considered large in absolute terms, it is, none the less, a consideration for part-time staff in their choice of profession. The Minister may be aware that, as I understand it, the HCPC has declined to introduce a pro-rata structure, or differentiated fee structure, for part-time workers. That is a pity, given the need for us to attract staff and the fact that part-time staff have a lot to offer.

I understand that nine trade unions and professional associations representing registrants in HCPC fitness-to-practise processes have written to advise the HCPC that more could be done to control its costs, improve its efficiency and reduce the number of unnecessary hearings. They also made detailed recommendations on how the investigating process could be improved in order to root out unnecessary investigations, reduce the number of lengthy hearings and facilitate consensual resolutions. Seeing the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, here of course brings great joy to us all, but I cannot help commenting on the draft Bill drawn up by the Law Commission, which he would have received some time ago. Well, he may have commissioned it, I do not know whether he received it.

If I remember correctly, it was commissioned in 2011 and received by my successors in April 2014.

My Lords, if he had still been in place I have no doubt that he would have acted on it. The point is, however, that a lot of the problems with the current fitness-to-practise procedures among health regulators generally derive from the fact that we have not implemented the Law Commission’s Bill, which would have allowed for a much more streamlined process.

The HCPC has, as I say, earned a great deal of credit for the way in which it has absorbed new professions over the years. I hope, however, that in this short debate the Minister will agree to look at some of the general principles raised. Does he agree that in any future proposal for a fee increase there needs to be a full breakdown and detailed justification for it? Does he also agree that it is not a good thing for Ministers to entertain fee rises that are higher than the percentage fee rises that are going to be given to NHS staff? There is an issue about pay restraint on the one hand and what seems to be the regulator’s ability to raise fees well above that rate on the other. Will he consider discussing with the PSA whether it will take a more proactive role in monitoring and evaluating any proposed increases by the regulator it oversees? Will he also look at whether the HCPC should be required to introduce a pro rata, or differentiated, fee structure for part-time workers?

Lastly, and I am sure the noble Lord will say yes to this, will he say that the Government will make it a priority to bring in primary legislation as soon as possible to implement the Law Commission proposals? The alternative is that the Minister will have to go through a succession of Section 60 orders when as a general principle he would find widespread support for the Law Commission proposals—there are one or two issues that we will debate—for a streamlined process that would apply consistency across all the regulated bodies. I am sure that it would reduce the cost of the regulators and, if the Government are not able to bring this in as a full Bill, at the very least it lends itself to pre-legislative scrutiny. However, there is enough consensus around the proposal to allow the Government to introduce a Bill. This short debate is a good opportunity to raise the issue of transparency of the regulators, and I hope that the Government are prepared to give this further consideration when a proposal comes up in the future. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for introducing this short debate on the HCPC. It raises other issues beyond the HCPC that are of great interest to us.

The HCPC is a statutory regulator established to protect the public. To do this, it keeps a register of professionals who meet its standards for professional skills and behaviour. The noble Lord knows all that, but this is a preamble. There are 330,000 professionals across 16 health, psychological and social work professions. It is a very large regulator. It is self-financing, with funding coming entirely from registrant fees. It does not receive any regular funding from the Government.

The HCPC’s registration fees are the lowest, and have consistently been so, of all the UK statutory regulators of health and care professionals overseen by the Professional Standards Authority. Its fees are £90 a year. The next lowest regulator, the NMC, charges £120 per year. By way of comparison, the GMC is £420 a year. However, as a self-funding regulator, like all the professional regulators, its needs to keep its fees under regular review so that it can respond to demands on finances and resources, and to continue its role of delivering effective public protection.

As noble Lords will know, from 27 March 2015 to 6 May 2015 the HCPC consulted on raising its fees by an average of 12%, or £10 a year. That is 26 days. I appreciate that it was over an election period but that decision on consultation had to be with the council of the HCPC and the decision to formally review and consult on an increase to its fees was the result of three factors: first, as the noble Lord mentioned, because the PSA fee regulations came into effect, as a result of the Government deciding that the PSA should be funded by the regulators that it oversees, rather than the public purse; secondly, to improve how fitness-to -practise hearings are run; and thirdly, to invest in essential IT systems.

In relation to the first point, the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (Fees) Regulations 2015 came into force on 1 April 2015. This marked the realisation of the previous Administration’s commitment, set out in the Department of Health’s report Liberating the NHS: Report of the arm’s-length bodies review, to move the PSA away from government funding, to becoming funded by a fee on the nine regulatory bodies that it oversees. As required by those regulations, the PSA’s fee is calculated on each regulatory body’s registrant numbers. The HCPC is the second largest regulator by registrant numbers and will contribute to around 22% of the PSA’s funding. The PSA fee will be determined each year.

This methodology was considered fair because available evidence suggests that the level of PSA resource given to each regulatory body is very much influenced by the number of registrants as this critically informs the level of Section 29 work that the PSA undertakes for each regulator. Section 29 work is where a fitness-to-practise case is heard in court.

While around one-third of the 2015 fee increase was to meet the PSA’s fees, as I have said, the HCPC is also making improvements in the way it works. The HCPC is also looking to improve its fitness-to-practise processes. In doing so, the HCPC plans to introduce dedicated facilities for fitness-to-practise hearings. The HCPC’s existing office space was not purpose built for holding public fitness-to-practise hearings, which affects its ability to run a high-quality and modern adjudication service. It believes that introducing dedicated space will be consistent with the modern adjudication facilities provided by other regulators.

The HCPC also says that that the number and length of hearings are key cost drivers of the fitness-to-practise process. It has said that it aims to keep the cost of hearings low—for example, by proactively looking to conclude cases with the consent of the registrant involved, where appropriate. This avoids the need to have a contested hearing, with all the costs this involves. However, the HCPC says that it has seen an increase in the complexity of the cases since 2012. This has meant that the average length of a hearing has increased over time. The average number of witnesses required for each hearing has also increased to between three and four for each hearing. The HCPC’s primary objective is public protection, and it says that every allegation it receives must therefore be considered on its merits.

On the third point, the HCPC says that the new IT system it is looking to introduce will make its work more efficient by replacing a number of other legacy systems, by driving and delivering time and resource savings. Additionally, a project looking at redesigning the HCPC’s registration processes and systems should improve the level of service that it is able to provide to applicants and registrants by allowing them to carry out many more tasks online.

Finally, in determining budget forecasts for future years and the level of fees, the HCPC says that it had to make assumptions about costs and activity level—in particular, the volume of fitness-to-practise cases. It says that these forecasts indicated that despite generating a surplus in previous years, without the 2015 fee increase it would make operating deficits in 2015-16 and 2016-17. This would not be sustainable and would threaten its ability to fulfil its role of protecting the public. Additionally, the HCPC registers each profession on a two-year cycle, so it will take two full financial years before any increase in the renewal fee has full effect.

The HCPC says that it has not changed its ongoing commitment to the principle of small, regular increases in the fees where possible and necessary. Its latest five-year plan does not forecast any further increase in fees until 2019-2020. That said, in the past the Government have expressed a view on registration fees and the expectation that they should not increase beyond their current levels unless there is a clear and robust business case that any increase is essential to ensure the exercise of statutory duties.

The noble Lord raised a number of issues. First, he asked that in a consultation exercise there should be a detailed breakdown of the reason for a fee increase, which strikes me as a reasonable request, which I will draw to the attention of the PSA. He said that the fees should not increase by greater than the amount of the increase paid to NHS staff. All I can say is that the fee increase must be kept to an absolute minimum. I entirely appreciate that we live in a very difficult world, and fees must be kept to an absolute minimum. I do not think that we can make any commitment that they should be kept to the absolute level of increases of salaries paid to NHS staff.

The noble Lord asked that the PSA should take a more proactive role. Of course, the PSA undertakes an annual assessment of all the organisations that it is responsible for, which is tabled before Parliament. It is of course up to the Health Select Committee, if it wishes to do so, to have any individual regulator before it.

The noble Lord also asked about part-time workers; I hope that it will be all right if I write to him about part-time workers, as I am not sure of my answer on that. As regards the work the Law Commission has done, I think we all accept that it has done an outstanding job and made some extremely important and what could be very useful recommendations. The Government are currently reviewing how to take forward the work of the Law Commission.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Prior. He is right to acknowledge the issue of pay restraint. However, I have three points. On consultation, I hope that the HCPC and the PSA will take note that it is reasonable to have a proper consultation in relation to fee increases in the future. Secondly, I noted what the Minister had to say about the introduction of IT and new systems and that it would lead to resource savings in the future. I have some experience of IT systems in the health service, and I certainly hope that that comes true. I noted the expectation of no further increase until 2019-20. Given the expected resource savings from new IT systems, it would be very disappointing if the HCPC came forward with any other proposal in the next Parliament.

Thirdly, I understand the Government’s reluctance to bring health legislation through Parliament, but one has received so many representations from the regulatory bodies. Given the extensive work of the Law Commission, I hope that the Government will give further consideration to bringing a Bill before Parliament before too long. The debate has been very helpful and I am most grateful.

Motion agreed.